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Critic's Notebook for November 24, 2014

by Christine Emba

Posted: Nov 24, 2014 07:08 PM


Dana Gordon, "Endless Painting 1" (2014). Oil on canvas.

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in culture, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

This week: Beethoven, Shakespeare, and letters as sacred texts.

Fiction: Ticket to Childhood, by Nguyen Nhat Anh, Will Naythons, trans. (Overlook): The story of a man looking back on his life, this charming short work recalls The Little Prince in its depiction of childhood sensibilities pitted against an often illogical and absurd adult world. As we learn of the small miracles and tragedies that made up the narrator’s life—the misadventures and the misdeeds—we also meet his long-lost friends, none of whom can forget how rich their lives once were. The best-selling book in the history of modern Vietnam, this first English translation of Ticket to Childhood marks the arrival of a hugely appealing and engaging author. CE

Nonfiction: America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, by Bret Stephens (Sentinel HC): Bret Stephens is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The Wall Street Journal.  He should win another prize for this incisive and timely book about America’s turn inward from the world stage. On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama promised to engage in “nation-building at home.” What we have seen over the last six years, however, is a deliberate abdication of our responsibilities as a great power. The results have been as predictable as they are dismaying: a newly militant Russia, an expansionist China, a near-nuclear Iran, chaos on our southern border, a withdrawal of confidence on the part of our traditional allies. Charles Krauthammer once said that decline was a choice, not an inevitability.  But as Stephens shows, what we have seen in American under Barack Obama is not so much decline as retreat, i.e., the willful withdrawal from our foreign policy commitments. The stakes could not be higher, and Stephens’s announced ambition for this book—to serve as a foreign policy primer for the next Republican President—makes it essential reading. Look for the review by Keith Windschuttle in our December issue.   –RK

Poetry: Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare's Sonnets by Neil Rudenstine (FSG): For those looking to continue their Shakespearean education (a wonderfully endless pursuit), Neil Rudenstine’s newest book Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is the perfect guide for both scholar and novice. Organizing Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets thematically, the former president of Harvard is able to dissect each sonnet for its individual poetic techniques, while also linking entire clusters of poems together by their broader narratives. Though some may disagree with Rudenstein’s interpretations, his book is an excellent way to jump into some of the best lyric poetry ever written. –RH

Art:  Dana Gordon at Andre Zarre Gallery (Through December 6): While many artists paint widely, Dana Gordon paints deeply. For over a decade, Gordon has been dedicated to understanding the possibilities of embedding a surrealist-like form within a colorful grid. His kaleidoscopic work recalls stained glass and Orphic Cubism. Following up on a breakout exhibition at Williamsburg's Sideshow Gallery in 2013, Gordon has now landed at Chelsea's Andre Zarre. In one chapel-like room, white sheets of smoke billow up over his grids, just as Gordon's keen painterly touch cuts against the digital sense of the compositions. —JP

Music: Hilary Hahn and Beethoven’s Seventh (November 26-29): New York's musical offerings this week are on the thin side thanks to the Thanksgiving holiday (and will only get thinner with the advent of holiday pops season), but one set of concerts does stand out. For three nights, starting Wednesday, Hilary Hahn joins the New York Philharmonic for performances of Korngold's shining Violin Concerto. The Philharmonic, under the baton of Jaap van Zweden, will present Beethoven's brilliant Seventh, as well as the Cyrano de Bergerac Overture by Johann Wagenaar. ECS

Other: Will Barnet: A Tribute (Through January 10, 2015): Will Barnet had a lasting connection to the New York art scene, exploring both abstraction and representation in depth. In 2011 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts, in part for his “nuanced and graceful depictions of family and personal scenes.” The Alexandre Gallery, which specializes in twentieth-century and contemporary American art, will exhibit a survey of nine paintings and related works on paper spanning Barnet’s career.  —JP

From the archive: The rites of editing: letters as sacred texts, by Gloria G. Fromm: How should we construe the value of authors’ letters, especially when collections are so often incomplete?

From our latest issue: The compensations of Michael Oakeshott, by Timothy Fuller: Revisiting the philosopher through his personal notebooks.

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In praise of a mechanical medium

by Nola Tully

Posted: Nov 24, 2014 12:00 PM

Description: Macintosh HD:Users:emba:Desktop:unnamed-1.jpg

White Fence, Port Kent, New York. (1915). Platinum Print.

Though it feels like serendipity, “Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography” was five years in the making.  In 2009 the opportunity arose for the Philadelphia Museum of Art to acquire 3,000 prints from the Paul Strand Archive at Aperture, making it the world's largest and most comprehensive repository of the artist’s work. In 2010 the museum began cataloging Strand’s prints. From what is now a collection of over 4,000 works, the museum’s Brodsky Curator of Photography, Peter Barberie, has culled 250 for this critical reassessment of the artist’s evolution, and the result is worth the wait.

As a key figure in modernist photography, Strand is best known for his work from the early 1920’s. Yet in a career that spanned seven decades, he breezed through pictorialism, osmosed Cubism, fused abstraction and social documentation, printed books, made motion pictures, and often cannibalized his own earlier ideas and images in portraits of life across the globe. In projects he often referred to as “experiments” the inquiry of each informs the next. As the PMA’s show unfolds, it is staggering to consider how one artist could coherently navigate so many terrains, while allowing humanism to remain the driving force and connection betweeen sometimes disparate methods. 


Strand mythologized his career as one of life’s accidents. Born in NYC in 1890 to first generation Americans of German-Jewish descent, he recounts that his father gave him his first camera, a Kodak Brownie, in 1902. From 1904 to 1908 he attended the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan, where the photographer Lewis Hine was assistant professor of biology and teacher of an extracurricular course in photography. Hine was not yet famous for his documentary photos of Ellis Island immigrants and child laborers, but he did introduce his students to Alfred Stieglitz and the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue, later known simply as “291.” This was, in Strand’s words, a “decisive day.” Less than a decade later, Strand had his first solo show, Photographs of New York and Other Places at 291.

The Armory Show of 1913 marked the migration of Modernism to America, and Steiglitz and his group were concurrently campaigning for the recognition of photography as a legitimate art form. Among Strand’s photos from his 291 show is River Neckar, Germany (1911), a vertical framing of the telescoping river with barren trees in the foreground that aligns more with the soft-focus style of the pictorialists, the early fine art photographers whose techniques imitated painting. But it marked a turning point for Strand.

By this time, he had abandoned what he alluded to as “Whistlering with a soft-focus lens.” Wall Street (1915), is a somber portrait of the city in morning light that marks a shift to the urban landscape. Here Strand sought to organize movement in a way that was abstract and yet “controlled.” A crowd of miniature men and women move along the bottom of the horizontal frame, figures casting elongated shadows onto the pavement and against the monolithic columns and shadows of the Morgan Trust building.


Wall Street, New York (1915). Platinum Print.


The exhibition continues chronologically, documenting the further evolution of Strand’s photographic style. White Fence, Port Kent, New York (1916), perhaps one of his most famous images, is a pivotal moment exemplifiying his brief foray into abstraction: the familiar shapes of a farmhouse, barn, and white fence flatten out and dominate the composition. Abstraction Bowls, Twin Lakes, Connecticut (1916) is a close-up of quotidian objects during Strand’s foray into Cubism.  In an adjacent gallery, five emotional studies of Strand’s first wife, Rebecca, made over course of two years, are juxtaposed with elegantly composed photographs of his movie camera. Akeley Motion Picture Camera, New York (1923), is an homage to his trade and the hard muscular language of precision. Using the new medium of film, Strand revisited his depictions of the urban movement in Manhatta (1920), a short silent film inspired by Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, depicting a day in lower Manhattan.  The gallery runs continuous loops of this film and excerpts from two of his others, Redes and Native Land.

In a 1923 essay, The Art Motive in Photography, Strand identifies the photograph as an organism with a life of its own that could hang beside a Durer, a Rubens, or a Corot without “falling to pieces.” His valuation is not based on beauty or artistic appearance but on something intrinsic, which he called “livingness.”  As Peter Barbarie identifies in the catalogue essay, “For Strand realism could be woven out of fact or fiction, or both, but it had to say something tangible about the world. It left little room for cool detachment.” Eventually, Strand fcame to find Steiglitz’s work to be remote, and, by the end of the 1920’s, Strand had split from the 291 group and his marriage to Rebecca had ended. In the 1930’s he traveled to Mexico at the invitation of the Mexican composer Carlos Chávez. An exploration of leftist politics marked this next chapter of Strand’s work, which included realist filmmaking and the eventual founding of Frontier Films, Strand’s own film company.

Intellectually, Strand was fascinated by the ways in which time and history had shaped the people and places he photographed. He sought to show what was modern, vital, and present, and never ceased to question what the mechanical medium of photography could contribute as an art form. From Mexico, Strand wrote to a friend, Ted Stevenson,

“It is a tough problem we are up against, those of us who can no longer live in ivory towers of one sort or another . . . . I have come to the point where I believe that any young artist who is not aware of the human struggle—economic and political—which overshadows . . . every part of the world today—is strangely outside the main currents of life—yet to be an artist within those currents—well that is the new esthetic problem.”


Time in New England was Strand’s collaboration with Nancy Newhall on the first of his six books, and his attempt to reorient his work towards the traditional American subjects with which he had begun. Here, Strand assembled a lexicon of ordinary but quintessentially American objects that become what the exhibition curator Amanda Bock calls in her catalogue essay “the visual equivalents of democratic struggle,” conveying the labor of America’s founding without resorting to clichéd images. Just as the book was published in 1950, however, Strand moved to France. The goal of this move was to photograph a single village, but what resulted was a portrait series of French life.  

In the following decades, Strand also documented life in Ghana and Egypt.  But it was with his book Un Paese: Portrait of an Italian Village, published in 1955, that Strand at last achieved his goal of portraying a single community. In the early 1950s he focused on Luzzara in the Po River Valley, an area still recovering from WWII. Valentino Lusetti, Strand’s guide and translator, arranged to have his mother and five brothers to pose for The Family, Luzzara, Italy (The Lusettis) (1953). With two figures framed in a dark opening and more sitting and standing in front of a house, the image invokes a neorealist aesthetic and is as modern as any photograph today.


The Family, Luzzara (The Lusettis), 1953 (negative); Mid-late 1960s (print).  Gelatin silver print.

Although his works were neither radical nor revolutionary, Strand, facing increased scrutiny for his political views, chose voluntary exile in France. Though he returned to the United States for short visits, he maintained residence in France from 1951 until his death in 1976.


The show closes with a series of photographs taken during Strand’s last years, which he spent in Orgeval, outside of Paris—depictions of domestic life, primarily the gardens around his house. The artist who made art out of other people’s everyday subjects, in the end turned his camera on his own everyday life—his gardens and near surroundings. The PMA’s retrospective cuts a wide swath, but the aggregate is intimate.


“Paul Strand: Master of Modern Photography” is on view in the Dorrance Galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. from Oct. 21 through Jan. 4, 2015.

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A letter from Scotland: Looking back on the referendum

by Neilson MacKay

Posted: Nov 24, 2014 10:53 AM


What’s that saying? “The Scotsman is one who keeps the Sabbath and anything else he can lay his hands on.” Parsimonious? Sure, maybe a little. But we’re also… well, fissiparous. Last October, support for Scottish independence had flat-lined at twenty-five percent. Who could have guessed, back then, that a whopping 45.7 percent (that’s 1.6 million) of the (equally whopping) 84.6 percent of Scots who turned out to vote on September 18th would back a campaign which couldn’t tell us, post independence, if we would go back to hoarding pounds or groats?  It’s time—so everyone keeps saying—that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland “take a long, hard look at herself.”

Maybe so. “There can be no disputes, no reruns,” crowed a visibly rattled David Cameron the morning after. “We have heard the settled will of the Scottish people.” Decisive, yes, but settled? A 10.6-point margin of defeat—though wider than expected—is surely something of a Pyrrhic victory for us Unionists. So what went wrong?

For those unfamiliar with Caledonia’s constitutional arrangements (hardly a sin), here’s the abridged script: Scotland has enjoyed—some might say endured—a devolved, unicameral legislature since 1998, responsible for health and social services, education, law and order, housing, and local government. The Scottish National Party (SNP), headed by Alex Salmond (raison d'être: “independence”), has called the shots on these “devolved matters” since 2007. “Reserved matters,” i.e., everything else, remain issues for Westminster. This federal(ish) arrangement makes good sense. As David Hume (a great Scot) rightly observed, “truth springs from argument amongst friends.” Britannia, granted, no longer rules the waves. But 300 years of kinship, and a big single market, have left all four partners in pretty good shape.

Or so we thought. Listening to “Yes Scotland,” an unholy alliance between the SNP, The Scottish Green Party and (gasp) the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), you’d think the Land of Hope and Glory was two clicks north of Sodom. The U.K., we learned—that voracious, sclerotic, cold-blooded drunken warlord on the edge of rosy Europe—is “broken”.

Salmond’s two main points were as follows: First off, the Scots are outnumbered ten to one, and our bigger brother’s voting habits (Conservative) are antipodal to our own. Not, by any means, a moot point, but then Glasgow and the Orkney Islands don’t vote the same way either. And an Orcadian free state? Hardly a covetable prospect. Besides, that tenth of Scots do a good job, intermittently, of ensuring that England—the only UK country without its own parliament—don’t get who they vote for, to boot. Second: “We could be a progressive beacon for those across these islands who yearn for a fairer society.” Gulp. The U.K., Salmond pointed out, is “the fourth most unequal country in the developed world”. Oh dear. Isn’t the conflation of fairness and equality a quintessentially British malady?

There’s a quip in Scotland—now a platitude—that we have fewer Conservative MPs than there are pandas at Edinburgh Zoo (two pandas). The antecedents to this appalling state of affairs—Thatcher’s deeply unpopular poll tax being the main offender—are manifold. Suffice to say, Scotland hates the Tories. Or so we’re told. 15 percent of us send our lone panda down to Westminster on a regular basis. In any case, the anti-Thatcher campfire of the late 1980s proved a convenient confluence for Scotland’s center-left parties (that’s British English for “socialist”), and they’ve been playing songs around the embers ever since. No surprise, then, that Salmond’s first job was to convince us that a “No vote” was really just a “Tory vote,” a tacit assent of a neo-liberal dystopia doomed to a succession of David Camerons brandishing croquet mallets, welfare cuts and Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles. The referendum, cooed Salmond, was “Team Scotland [the “Yes” Campaign] against Team Westminster”.

This clever, binary distinction was just one way by which Salmond averted scrutiny from the SNP’s hopeless (nay, delusional) economic and fiscal policy. As The Spectator’s Alex Massie observed, “it is not possible to spend more, borrow less and tax the same”. Quite. Even if his hugely optimistic forecast for oil revenue—some £7bn a year—were accurate, Salmond would still have to account for a £10bn fiscal black hole, which of course he couldn’t. And then there was currency. What would we be paid in? Sterling, we knew, was off the table. No answer. Perhaps Salmond, like Joseph Stiglitz, thought currency a “non-issue.” Little wonder big business was a heartbeat away from packing its bags for more auspicious climes (i.e., England). But flagging up these issues proved a challenge. Thanks to Salmond, the “No” Campaign quickly earned the appellation “Project Fear”—an absurd, but brilliant, bit of huckstering. Any grievances with Salmond’s master-plan, like The Centre for Economics and Business Research’s prediction that an independent Scotland would lose between 20,000 and 40,000 jobs, was swiftly shelved under “Tory scaremongering.” This politics of opposition proved so delectable most of us forgot to ask how well the SNP were looking after those devolved matters already within their purview. Appallingly, is the answer – particularly in education, which Massie is right to call “Scotland’s greatest national disgrace.”

So why, all things considered, did Salmond’s Panglossian narrative win so many souls? To be sure, it is much easier to be taken in by a Foucault than by a Burke. Clamor will always have the upper hand over quietude (especially for Scots). That said, the “No” campaign was, from start to finish, a botched job. The nationalists, to be fair, led a tactfully un-nationalist campaign. Scottish patriotism would throttle their multicultural predilections, and they knew it. The unionists, conversely, needed all the patriotism they could get. But they never could quite articulate why the Union mattered. “Romance,” noted Sir Walter Scott “is a revolt against the despotism of facts.” Where was the romance? For left-liberals, of course, it is unthinkable to love a country and not its government, so they love neither. For the rest of us, it would have been nice to be reminded of that vast cultural inheritance, of those values, institutions, customs, traditions and virtues which were once a beacon for humanity—of all those things which made this country “Great” in the first place. But no such luck.

What’s top of the SNP’s agenda now? Another referendum. “I believe perhaps more strongly than I ever have that we will be independent,” says Nicola Sturgeon, now party leader. These people just can’t stomach the idea of a sentient opponent. Those poor “No” voters were duped, they howled, scared-stiff, coerced, cajoled. This condescending tripe shows little sign of abatement. In any case, it’s looking far less likely now that independence, as Salmond assured us, is a “once in a generation question.” 

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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Nov 21, 2014 12:46 PM

Illustration from Mr. Bliss , a little-known children's book by J. R. R. Tolkien

Recent links of interest:

The story of the first painting to sell for over a million pounds

Richard Cork, The Spectator
"Even the most hardened dealers sitting in the audience breathed gasps of disbelief. Then there was a spontaneous burst of applause. The auctioneer left his rostrum, the painting was hastily removed, and sheer pandemonium broke out."

Why I am teaching a course called "Wasting Time On the Internet"
Kenneth Goldsmith, The New Yorker
Yes, please do explain. (Also, shouldn't I have been granted an advanced degree by now?)

In a New Napoleonic Era, His Hats and Stockings Rise to Power
Patrick Reevell, New York Times
Napoleon ephemera is hot, meaning our Napoleon: A Life launch party was very on trend. Don't you wish you were a Friend?

A Raspberry for Emetic Music
Simon Heffer, Standpoint
"I listen to a lot of modern classical music. I never want to hear most of it again."

When Did the Art World Get So Conservative?
Jerry Saltz, Vulture
I'm not sure "conservative" is the right word for what's being described, but the sacred cows are breeding at a rapid rate. 

From our pages:

The German Plath
Jeffrey Meyers
Sylvia's German roots pervaded her life and work, often in unsettling ways. 

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Manners makyth man

by James Bowman

Posted: Nov 20, 2014 02:06 PM

Sir William Dugdale, Bt.

“Know thyself” — in the words of the ancient Greek maxim that was inscribed outside the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and once known to all who received the education of a gentleman. It would have been good advice for Matthew Norman, a columnist for London Independent, who apparently did not receive such an education. He writes today with an almost unbelievable smugness and condescension of his own, of the recent death of Sir William Dugdale, an uncle of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, that he typified his class’s remoteness from everyday life and sympathy with ordinary folk.

In a deeply nebulous way, Sir William’s life hints at the PM’s enduring failure to connect on a gut level with the electorate. Crudely put, the problem is the hoary one of class. But a more nuanced analysis might identify that condescending, patrician attitude towards the rest of us which, however seemly in Sir William’s time, renders his nephew by marriage off-puttingly anachronistic.


What seems particularly to have got up Mr. Norman’s nose about the late baronet is this statement in his memoir Settling the Bill (2011) — which the snooty columnist is careful to tell us was privately published. “The thing is, and the Labour Party underestimate it,” wrote Sir William, “if you ask the working classes who they want to lead them, they prefer to be led by a duke. I know it’s an unpopular thing to say these days. However, I have learned this from my own experience.”

Now he may have been wrong about this. I rather think he was. Or at least out of date — not too surprising in man in his 90th year, as he was at the time. But at least he recognized that it was “an unpopular thing to say.” Mr. Norman’s own sense of self-irony, by contrast, appears to be completely absent. All the way through his piece he out-Dukes any Duke I know of in his sublime consciousness of his own perfect rectitude, his assurance of being immune from anything serious in the way of contradiction or even disagreement. Who can doubt that this confidence is born of exactly the same kind of class-consciousness that he criticizes in Sir William — and his nephew by marriage, David Cameron?

Belonging as he does to the new aristocracy of the journalistic élite, Mr. Norman is so secure in his position that it never occurs to him that he could be wrong or offensive in what he writes. He makes much of the Prime Minister’s faux pas (as he sees it) in telling a particularly obnoxious Labour member of Parliament that it was “time to retire” — which the columnist calls “a shamefully arrogant way to treat a venerable former miner.” And yet he himself writes of Sir William, a man who won the Military Cross for his bravery under fire while fighting the Germans in North Africa as “a sort of toffish Zelig” and “this charmingly Flashmanesque figure” — Flashman being, in case you don’t know it, the bully of Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days, first published in 1857, who later featured in a series of novels by George MacDonald Fraser as a notorious and shameless coward.

Here is a man who was a genuine hero but who is to Mr. Norman a mere exemplum of why it was quite right for his own class of intellectuals and technocrats to depose the old élite, reject their values — “being patronised by Churchill” as he puts it — and take their place in the seat of patronage. He also criticizes Sir William over the story he relates in his memoir of how, in the columnist’s words, as “a young blade at Oxford,” he was once arrested for “Bertie Woosterishly throwing soot bombs over such socialist marchers as Tony Crosland and Roy Jenkins.” He omits to mention that those socialist luminaries-to-be were, at the time of their besooting on a May Day march in 1940, showing their fitness to rule by demonstrating, a few days before the fall of France, in support of the invasion of Finland by Hitler’s ally at the time and their fellow socialist, Josef Stalin. Soot, I’d have thought, was a great deal too good for them.

From the obituaries of Sir William that I read, my favorite part came from the one in The Times of London (paywall) describing how,

at Medjez-el-Bab, outside the main Tunis to Constantine road, his platoon was constantly dive bombed by Stukas. “When the Germans appeared, one defended oneself and eventually a [medal] appeared,” he was to say, although his modesty was such that there was no inclusion in his memoir of his citation of an MC for “outstanding bravery under fire,” only his mention in despatches.

Of course, it was one of the well-known characteristics of the old ruling class that it would have frowned on any hint of boasting or being overly impressed with oneself as caddish and ungentlemanly behavior. Flashmanesque, in fact. Sir William’s, clearly, was the opposite. I don’t think I can be the only one who really would prefer to be led by a humorous and self-effacing Duke with the manners of a Sir William Dugdale rather than the sort of puffed up, self-important representative of the new ruling classes that Matthew Norman reveals himself to be.

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Mahler without climax

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Nov 20, 2014 01:02 PM

Michael Tilson Thomas

Not that you asked, but here is a little of my history with the Mahler symphonies: The Seventh was the last domino to fall. The Symphony No. 7 was the last Mahler symphony I fully embraced, loved, and revered. I always loved the last movement, mind you—who can resist it? It is a festival in C major, a younger cousin of the Siegfried finale and many other C-major celebrations.

If I could have bought a record of the last movement only, I would have. The first four movements of the Seventh were befuddling. But when I fell for them—the whole symphony—I fell hard, and forever.

The Seventh was played by the San Francisco Symphony in Carnegie Hall last night, with Michael Tilson Thomas on the podium. He has a reputation as a Mahlerian, and it is deserved. Many years ago, I heard him conduct the SFS in the Sixth at the Kennedy Center in Washington. It remains one of the best performances of that work I have heard.

And last night’s Seventh? It was brilliantly played. Brilliantly executed. This was true from the opening horn and on to the end. The trumpet was amazingly unblaring. And when it pealed, you felt a shiver down your spine. I could praise any number of individual players, as well as the orchestra as a whole. Let me continue for a moment.

The sound of the orchestra, overall, was marvelous. Was this Carnegie Hall or the SFS? Or both? I find it hard to tell. When an orchestra sounds marvelous in Avery Fisher Hall—you know it’s the orchestra.

So, the playing was first-rate. How about the conducting, the interpreting? Also very good. The first movement, in Tilson Thomas’s hands, was steady, sensible, and clear. Maybe a little too clear—a touch of Mahlerian soup is unharmful. Also, the music could have used more mystery. It was slightly careful. Some of the notes were “placed.” Do you know what I mean by that? The music, at times, would have benefited from more of a flow.

But I am in the realm of intangibles, as well as the picky.

The second movement—the first of the “Night Musics”—had its jaunty grace. The march was gentle but not slack. I might have asked for added inner intensity—but, again, picky.

The third movement is the Scherzo, and it ought to be darkly scampering. It was.

And, oh, the fourth—the second “Night Music,” the Andante amoroso! It was andante amoroso indeed. It was bucolic, simple, lovely—and weird. This movement is probably the weirdest in a weird symphony. (You remember Harold Bloom’s high commendation to literature: “strange.”)

Now we get to “my” movement, and everyone’s movement, the last. It was okay. Tilson Thomas has an admirable sense of tempo. But the finale—“Rondo-Finale,” Mahler calls it—could have been far more stirring, more exciting. I think it should eventually be well-nigh giddy and delirious. Tilson Thomas was more . . . measured. Not to say staid.

This critic left disgruntled—while admiring that brilliant playing, and the conductor’s career-long integrity as a Mahlerian.

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At the Philharmonic: Olé!

by Jay Nordlinger

Posted: Nov 19, 2014 11:36 AM

Leonard Slatkin

El Salón México is a piece of “musical tourism,” to use an old phrase. It is not to be confused with the Cuban Overture, another piece of musical tourism. The former is by Copland, the latter by Gershwin.

Copland’s Mexican piece opened a concert of the New York Philharmonic recently. The orchestra had a guest conductor, Leonard Slatkin, about whom I had a funny thought. For many years—all of my life, really—I have thought of him as Felix Slatkin’s son. But isn’t it time to stop? Well past time?

Felix Slatkin was a violinist and conductor who died in 1963. Leonard, born in 1944, is now seventy. I don’t know why I still think of him as Felix’s son. Leonard has had a much bigger career than his very gifted dad did.

One of the joys of Leonard Slatkin is that he really, really loves music. What a dumb statement! Doesn’t every professional musician love music? Well, there are degrees, let’s say. Slatkin is an appreciator, devourer, and advocate of almost all music. He is a musician in his heart, and to his fingertips. Also, he’s one of the great talkers about music—a superb radio host, for example.

There are some musicians who retain a child-like glee about music into their senior years. Slatkin is a model of the type.

He conducted El Salón México brilliantly. He conducted it as though it were the most important piece in the world. (It’s not, though it’s pleasant.) He employed a crisp, stylish beat. The tricky rhythms of the piece, he handled beautifully. The performance was colorful, precise, and wonderful.

At several points, the New York Philharmonic sounded loud and brash. That’s exactly the way they’re supposed to sound, especially in American music. It is a tonal signature.

There was some very good first-desk playing, or first-chair playing. When the orchestra was taking its bows, Anthony McGill stood up. Whoa! Where did he come from? For many years, he has been a principal of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Now he has crossed the plaza to the Philharmonic? Who knew? Probably everyone, except me.

I think the Philharmonic had Ricardo Morales as principal clarinet for about two seconds not long ago. I gather he is back in Philadelphia. (On the whole, he’d rather be in Philadelphia?) But McGill will certainly do. Stanley Drucker was with the Philharmonic for almost 63 years. Maybe McGill will do a solid 6.3.

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Critic's Notebook for November 17, 2014

by Christine Emba

Posted: Nov 17, 2014 05:48 PM


Titian, Danaë with Eros, 1544

Sign up to receive “Critic's Notebook” in your inbox every Monday—it only takes a few seconds and it's completely free! “Critic's Notebook” is a weekly preview of the best to read, see, and hear in culture, compiled by the editors of The New Criterion.

This week: Mad kings, Some Permanent Things, and the Barber of Seville.  

Fiction: The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber (Hogarth): In this science-fiction tale, Peter, a devoted man of faith, is called away on the mission that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC, and is thrilled to find aliens receptive to his proselytizing. But Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate, as natural disasters and food shortages threaten governments and devastate whole countries. Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable. CE

Nonfiction: A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III, by Janice Hadlow (Henry Holt and Co.): King George III—“the mad king”—does not often evoke sympathy in the minds of many Americans. But there is another side to the King that many are not aware of: his desire, in the middle of a highly immoral royal family, to have a strong moral character. George’s father and grandfather both created much disharmony in each of their marriages and families. George III believed that in order to be a good father to his country, one must be a good father to his children (he had fifteen of them), as well as a good husband—“to act as the conscience of the country.” In telling of George’s struggle to keep his family safe, Janice Hadlow reveals many of the entertaining scandals of the eighteenth-century English court. –RH

Poetry: Some Permanent Things, by James Matthew Wilson (Wiseblood Books): Wilson states that his interest lies in “conserving what is intrinsically good.” His first full book of poetry alludes to the classics and modernity with an eye towards traditional meter and rhyme, creating a compelling and serious work. CE

 Art:  “Today’s Portraits: Emerging Artists & Leading Masters” (November 12-20): Portraits, Inc., which bills itself as “a leading source for contemporary portraits,” is presenting an exhibition and symposium exploring contemporary portraiture at the Salmagundi Club in New York City. The exhibition will close on Nov. 20th with a roundtable discussion on portraiture and figurative painting with the editor of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine Peter Trippi, the dean of the New York Academy of Art Peter Drake, and the accomplished painters Burton Silverman, Sharon Sprung, and Patricia Watwood.  —JP

Music: Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Tuesday, November 18): Rossini's beloved masterpiece returns to the Met in Bartlett Sher's popular 2006 production. Isabel Leonard, Christopher Maltman, and Lawrence Brownlee lead a starry cast under the baton of Michele Mariotti.  ECS

Other:  Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism, by James Burnham (Encounter): Today, James Burnham is not much known. But in his heyday (floruit 1940-1980) Burnham bestrode the cultural landscape like a colossus. He was the author of a short shelf of important books —The Managerial Revolution, published in 1941, is probably the most famous—and he was a powerful leavening agent for all manner of cultural and political initiatives. In 1955, he helped start National Review. Looking back decades later, Bill Buckley called Burnham “the number one intellectual influence on National Review since the day of its founding.” You will search in vain to find most of his books, but Encounter has just republished his 1964 classic Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism. Most cultures, Burnham notes, fail not from external causes like invasion but from internal decay: suicide.  This is an extraordinary book, as pertinent to our situation today in the early twenty-first century as it was during the height of the Cold War when Burnham penned his admonitory challenge to leftist complacency.  –RK

From the archive: Titian’s daily practice, by Creighton Gilbert (January 1991): Looking past the nudes to further appreciate Titian’s talents.

From our latest issue: Humanities: doomed to lose?, by Mark Bauerlein: How humanities professors are letting identity politics destroy their discipline.



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In Case You Missed It

by Christine Emba

Posted: Nov 14, 2014 12:54 PM

Lichtgrenze 2014 : 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall

Recent links of interest:

Why Read New Books?
Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books
Why not live in the past? Wouldn’t you rather let your critical faculties wither? Isn’t it easier not to adjust to the new? Am I giving the answer away?

Reading a Poem: 20 Strategies
Mark Yakich, The Atlantic
We don’t endorse every methodology, but the intention is good. 

Stewardship of the Reader’s Eyes
Helen Andrews, First Things
Making a case for censorship: “Bad books are like bad company—they don’t make error inevitable, but they make it difficult to guard against.”

The War of the Words
Keith Gessen, Vanity Fair
”The dispute between Amazon and the publishers is a dispute between an e-commerce giant and companies that have for generations been printing text on paper. […] It is definitely a dispute between hyper-capitalism and cultural conservation. But in the end it is a dispute that comes down to different visions of the future of the written word.”

From our pages:

Debo, Duchess of Devonshire
David Pryce-Jones
Memories of the Duchess and the rest of the Mitford clan.

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Briefly Noted: Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy of Arts, London

by Christie Davies

Posted: Nov 13, 2014 01:09 PM

Anselm Kiefer, Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations: The New Theory of War. Time, Dimension of the World, Battles at Sea Occur Every 317 Years or Multiples Thereof, Namely 317 x 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 . . . . . . . .,2011-14. Image via

Who would have ever thought that models of rusting U-boats in a huge glass tank would dominate the revered Royal Academy Courtyard?  The German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer named Velimir Khlebnikov:  Fates of Nations, The New Theory of War (2011-2014) after the early twentieth-century Futurist poet and numerologist, who calculated that decisive sea battles always occur every 317 years. The sequence of Lepanto, Trafalgar, Tsushima, Jutland, Midway does not really support this hypothesis, but the sinister, hovering U-boats work well in bringing war to mind. In this they fit well with many of Kiefer’s other pieces, uncomfortable reminders of a tragic recent past.  


Anselm KieferHeroic Symbol V (Heroisches Sinnbild V)1970.

Kiefer has been called “a colossus” by the organizers of this first British retrospective of the artist’s work, and his pieces are quite literally colossal: on several occasions a single exhibit fills an entire wall of one of the Royal Academy’s larger galleries.  He is clearly the greatest German artist of his generation, and today his work, which often seeks to confront his country’s history, is having more impact in London than that of his local contemporaries.  The Royal Academy retrospective consists of work spanning his forty-year career, including several new pieces created for the Academy’s space.  

In a curious way, Kiefer has shown that size really does matter, for those of his works that have the greatest physical dimensions are also the ones that have achieved metaphorical greatness.   Some of the exhibits are positively (though he would claim negatively) Wagnerian, notably Parsifal I, Parsifal II, Parsifal III (1973) and Nothung (1973). These are various portrayals of a massive attic in a wooden house, a masterly capture of the dark grain of the wood and the light cast on the floor from a window with six panes.  A cot sits in one corner of the room and a sword spattered with real blood stabs into the floor; one can almost smell the wood.  


Anselm Kiefer, Parsifal III, 1973. Oil paint and blood on paper on canvas

Kiefer says he is trying to reclaim the ancient German and Norse myths from the unpleasant links to aggressive nationalism that they acquired in the twentieth century.  The piece stresses Parsifal’s task of restoring peace to the kingdom of the Grail, a theme that serves as a mirror to the struggle to rebuild a peaceful West Germany after 1945.  The names of the worst of the left-wing terrorist enemies of that peace, the members of the murderous, Stasi-financed Red Army Faction known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, are tucked into one corner of Parsifal III.  Kiefer has done what the Baader-Meinhof falsely claimed they were doing: confronting Germany’s Nazi past.

Destruction is the theme of Kiefer’s many paintings of ruins, which in some cases took him years to complete.  Interior (1981) and To the Unknown Painter (1983) show dark remnants of the kinds of grandiose neo-classical buildings that Albert Speer planned for Hitler.  Ironically, Speer built into his plans ideas for how his constructions would appear in the distant future, when they had become the iconic ruined monuments of a heroic Teutonic past.  Kiefer’s renderings are un-heroic, simply foreboding.  


Anselm Kiefer, Interior, 1981.

The artist knew a good deal about destroyed places: as a child in Germany after 1945, they had been his playground.  But his fascination with ruins is not limited to twentieth-century Germany; in The Fertile Crescent (2009) he has sought to capture what remains of the earliest human civilizations, those of Mesopotamia.  To make Osiris and Isis (1986-1987) he uses a television circuit board, from the copper wires of which hang ceramic fragments forming a pyramid.  His drive to create paintings that are truly three-dimensional culminates in For Ingeborg Bachman, The Sand from the Urns (1998-2009), a piece made of shellac and sand on canvas.

Yet Kiefer is not just a painter of destruction, desolation, and decay.  He brings a far more delicate touch to his exquisite flower paintings, From Oscar Wilde (1974) and For Genet (1969).  The same lightened sensibility can be seen in Tandaradei (2014), a huge field of flowers that refers to Unter der Linden, an old German poem by Walter von der Vogelweide. In it, a man and woman make love under the lime trees, atop the flowers of the meadow.  The birds, the only witnesses to their secret meeting, sing tandaradei.


Anselm Kiefer, From Oscar Wilde, 1974.  

In many of Kiefer’s works, it is far easier to feel the rubble than to imagine a life that blooms. But the artist claims that “Rubble is like a blossom of a plant,” and, in his art, Kiefer sees time and destruction as leading to rebirth.

"Anselm Kiefer" opened at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, England, on September 27th ,and remains on view through December 14th, 2014. 


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About ArmaVirumque


( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)


In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.


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December 18, 2014

Friends, young friends, and authors event: Holiday Party 2014

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